Monday, October 31, 2011

Terroir-Driven Whites

The principle of terroir is a difficult one to precisely explain, but the main principle in explaining terroir is that wines differ according to where the grapes were grown. Thus two wines made from the same variety (or varieties) grown in sites only a few hundred yards apart, can taste entirely different.

Generally, any discussion of terroir tends to focus on red wines, often some of the world's most famous. These inevitably include the offerings from Burgundy's Cote d'Or (the holy grail of terroir), the Barolo zone in Piemonte or Napa Valley with its Cabernet Sauvignons.

Yet many white wines are also the result of terroir; certainly one can taste the differences in the great Rieslings of the Mosel or Rhine valleys in Germany or with the brilliant whites coming from Montrachet, Meursault or other communes in Burgundy as well as the amazing whites wines of Alsace.

I'd like to add two wine types to the discussion of terroir. These are Sauvignon Blanc from San Antonio Valley in Chile and Riesling from Clare Valley in Australia. I enjoyed beautifully made examples of each wine recently and it struck me that these offerings have as much to do with terroir as any of the great reds of the world. Whites rarely get the same lofty treatment many reds wines receive, which is understandable, but at the same time unfair. So I'm doing my part in taking steps to correct this situation.

The San Antonio Valley, a sub-region of the Aconcagua Valley, is located in close proximity to the Pacific Ocean; most plantings are within 8-10 miles of the ocean, while a few are as close as two miles away. This is most definitely a maritime climate as sea breezes help moderate temperatures. It can be very cool during certain growing seasons, meaning this is a also a razor's edge climate, giving a sharp focus to this wine with naturally high acidity.

Several varieties have flourished here including Chardonnay, Riesling and Pinot Noir, but to date it is Sauvignon Blanc that San Antonio Valley has become best known for. The wines offer intense aromas, but not as much gooseberry as in the bottlings from Marlborough Valley in New Zealand, nor are these wines as mineral driven as the finest Sancerre from France's Loire Valley.

Thus Sauvignon Blanc from San Antonio Valley (Leyda Valley, a sector of San Antonio, has also become an outpost for this variety) has its own signature. Aromas of pink grapefruit, melon and freshly cut hay are often present. Here are my notes on the 2010 EQ Sauvignon Blanc from Matetic. (D.O. San Antonio):

Aromas of green melon, hyacinth, Bosc pear and snow peas; medium-full with a rich entry on the palate. Good length in the finish with very tangy acidity; a sleek, delicious wine that is nicely balanced with very good complexity and balance. 

This would be ideal with most shellfish; I especially love it with sautéed shrimp; the cost is $20 US retail. Other excellent Sauvignon Blanc from San Antonio (and Leyda) include two single vineyard bottlings from Casa Marin (Cipreses and Laurel Vineyards) along with Amayna, who produces both a barrel fermented and tank fermented example of Sauvignon Blanc. These two producers tend to bring out more raciness in their wines, which are often better suited with richer seafood or even certain types of poultry. (The importer of the EQ wine is Quintessential.)

Another great example of terroir in white wines emerges from the Clare Valley, located a bit north of the Barossa Valley in the state of South Australia. While Barossa is known for its excellent Shiraz, it is Riesling that has become the signature variety of the Clare Valley. Unlike San Antonio Valley in Chile, Clare Valley is far from the ocean; this has a moderate continental climate with cool to cold nights, warm to hot summer days and low humidity.

The Rieslings from here are quite dry with distinct minerality and often feature notes of petrol in the nose, which make them very different from the apple, pear and apricot aromas of Rieslings from the Mosel and Rhine Valleys in Germany. The sub-district of Watervale in the Clare Valley is an ideal zone for growing Riesling; this is where the grapes for the Kilakanoon wine is from; the particular spot is called Mort's Block and the vines here have an average age of 40 years.  Here are my notes in the 2010 bottling:

Beautiful aromas of petrol, lemon peel, quince and turmeric; medium-full with very good concentration. Very good acidity and a dry finish with very good persistence. Lovely touch of minerality and stoniness in the finish, which adds to the complexity. Clean as a whistle and so delicious!

The US retail price is $20. I'd expect this wine to drink well over the next 2-3 years, but I may be a bit conservative in that estimate. There's probably no reason this wouldn't be in fine shape in another 5 or 7 years. Still, it's so tasty now that I don't know why you'd wait. This is wonderful with Oriental or Asian cuisine or seared scallops. (The importer is Old Bridge Cellars.)


  1. Lovely tasting note, Tom. Spot on re being conservative with aging - these beauties can age 15 - 20 years, believe it or not. They develop toasty, citrus oil, mineral characters that are out of this world. If you can wait that long! Cheers, Shae

  2. Shae:

    15-20 years! Wow!

    I'll have to get a few more bottles!